Monday, November 12, 2007

Is it an English as a Second Language World?

Thanks to an email from a global real estate broker (Hi Judy!), I read this very interesting article in the Financial Times (free registration may be required). It talks about how the number of folks speaking English is growing (a la Did You Know?), but also how the language itself may be changing because of that. You really should read the entire article, but here are a few excerpts that particularly caught my eye.

About 50 years ago, English had more native speakers than any language except Mandarin. Today both Spanish and Hindi-Urdu have as many native speakers as English does. By the middle of this century, English could fall into fifth place behind Arabic in the numbers who speak it as a first language.
Hmm, what two languages that we typically teach in U.S. high schools are missing from that list? (Note: I think learning another language is as much about learning the history and the culture as it is about learning to communicate in that language, but I think it's still a question worth asking.)

The issue is: whose English will it be? Non-native speakers now outnumber native English-speakers by three to one. As hundreds of millions more learn the language, that imbalance will grow. Mr Graddol says the majority of encounters in English today take place between non-native speakers. Indeed, he adds, many business meetings held in English appear to run more smoothly when there are no native English-speakers present.

Barbara Seidlhofer, professor of English and applied linguistics at the University of Vienna, says relief at the absence of native speakers is common. “When we talk to people (often professionals) about international communication, this observation is made very often indeed. We haven’t conducted a systematic study of this yet, so what I say is anecdotal for the moment, but there seems to be very widespread agreement about it,” she says. She quotes an Austrian banker as saying: “I always find it easier to do business [in English] with partners from Greece or Russia or Denmark. But when the Irish call, it gets complicated and taxing.”
I’m not sure if it strikes anyone else this way, but the phrase “the majority of encounters in English today take place between non-native speakers” really seems significant to me. Especially when you follow it up with “relief at the absence of native speakers is common.” I wonder what implications that has (if any) on how we teach English to native speakers? I also wonder what that will look like over time, as more and more non-native speakers use English to communicate, will native speakers be the ones who have to adapt? Apparently that’s not so far-fetched.
Those who insist on standard English grammar remain in a powerful position. Scientists and academics who want their work published in international journals have to adhere to the grammatical rules followed by the native English-speaking elites.

But spoken English is another matter. Why should non-native speakers bother with what native speakers regard as correct? Their main aim, after all, is to be understood by one another. As Mr Graddol says, in most cases there is no native speaker present.

Prof Seidlhofer says that the English spoken by non-native speakers “is a natural language, and natural languages are difficult to control by ‘legislation’.

. . . When native speakers work in an international organisation, some report their language changing. Mr Crystal has written: “On several occasions, I have encountered English-as-a-first-language politicians, diplomats and civil servants working in Brussels commenting on how they have felt their own English being pulled in the direction of these foreign-language patterns . . . These people are not ‘talking down’ to their colleagues or consciously adopting simpler expressions, for the English of their interlocutors may be as fluent as their own. It is a natural process of accommodation, which in due course could lead to new standardised forms.”

Perhaps written English will eventually make these accommodations too. Today, having an article published in the Harvard Business Review or the British Medical Journal represents a substantial professional accomplishment for a business academic from China or a medical researcher from Thailand. But it is possible to imagine a time when a pan-Asian journal, for example, becomes equally, or more, prestigious and imposes its own “Globish” grammatical standards on writers – its editors changing “the patient feels” to “the patient feel”.

Native English speakers may wince but are an ever-shrinking minority.
I don’t want to get into the immigration debate currently raging in the U.S. (and elsewhere), but this idea of a majority becoming a minority is something I need to think more about, especially in relation to 21st century literacy. Certainly we are already seeing that happen in many areas in the U.S. and, if current trends continue, that will only accelerate, with profound implications for life in the United States.

But I find the idea of native English speakers being a minority in the global community of English speakers fascinating. At what point does the English as a second (or third or . . .) language majority change the very definition of what is acceptable English – and therefore become the de facto “native speaker”? And what does all this mean for education and how we help our student learn to communicate effectively in a flatter, globally interconnected, English as a second language world?

Shift happens.


  1. If you are a native speaker of English, working internationally, your language certainly is influenced. I have worked for a long time in Brussels, where we speak English as a working language in most cases. Over time, I find my sentence structure and phrasing starting to resemble non-natives. The most profound change was when working in Thailand. Again the working language was English, but for ease of understanding, we typically dropped tenses and verb endings.

  2. Karl.........What is difficult for me is to honor the teaching of French and Spanish at AHS while introducing Chinese. The transition of declining student interest in French while building up the Chinese is costly and we don't get any extra staffing or money from the ESC. Did you know that Lisa Sabey our Chinese teacher is taking a group of her students to China this summer. Cool, huh!

  3. @lexa - Thanks for sharing that. Do you find that your communication is as "rich" when using the altered language as when talking with native speakers? Also, do you find it hard to transition back to "regular" English when talking with native speakers?

  4. @ ron b - Welcome to the blogosphere! Yes, that is very cool that they're going to China. Can I go too?

    I think it is very tough to make decisions regarding World Languages. Obviously Spanish is huge, both in terms of number of speakers worldwide and in terms of the population here in Colorado. And while I think learning any language - and the associated culture - is a good thing, I think moving from German to Chinese with Tina's retirement was probably the best choice.

    No matter the language, I think it's critical that our students learn more about the peoples and cultures around the world, because they are very definitely going to be living and working in a much "flatter" world than the one you and I grew up in.

  5. This makes me wonder if we do our students a disservice by not requiring them to study a prominently spoken language from elementary school on. Maybe this is something to revisit as we discuss our goals and values in 21c.

  6. I agree with Lauren. In Douglas County students are learning a second language starting in Kindergarten. Their teachers are learning along with them. What an amazing opportunity! I hope this idea is introduced and implemented in LPS soon. Do you know of anything in the works?

    As for the China trip, can I go too? That's amazing, Lisa. Wow!

  7. I have just sat through 2 days of a training course on how to evaluate the spoken English of non-native speakers. Many of the native English speakers I see in class with the English language learners I work with would fail this evaluation. Obviously kids aren't born knowing the language, but what is going on when a supposedly native English-speaking kid in kindergarten answers the question "What is she doing?" by saying "Her eat."?

    Growing up in Europe, I learned a second language from the age of 7 and am very disappointed that there are no public elementary schools around here that offer foreign languages.